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Sports Then and Now

The NFL Today – One of a Kind

Posted on May 24, 2020 by Dean Hybl

In the world of television and entertainment, every show likes to claim that it is unique and different, but the reality in a world where most programming follows successful formulas is that very few are actually unique and different. One program that was definitely unique and different was the CBS NFL Today Pregame football show that hit the airwaves in 1975.

In 1975 CBS reinvented the NFL pregame show with The NFL Today featuring Brent Musburger, Phyllis George and Irv Cross.

Officially, CBS began airing a pre-recorded pregame show called the NFL Today in 1961 and over the next decade and a half the pregame show had a number of iterations and hosts, including Johnny Lujack, Frank Gifford, Pat Summerall and Jack Whitaker. It also featured during 1970 a pair of groundbreaking women as journalist Marjorie Margolies, who would later serve as a member of congress, and actress Carole Howey were brought on-board to provide weekly features.

In 1974 CBS went to a wraparound pre and post game program known as The NFL on CBS that included a live pregame show hosted by Whitaker.

After one year of that formula, CBS went back to the name The NFL Today for their pre-game show in 1975 and ultimately created a formula that would prove to be magical.

Serving as the host for the new NFL Today program was veteran sports anchor and play-by-play announcer Brent Musburger. Musburger was the sports anchor at WBBM-TV in Chicago and also had become a play-by-play announcer for CBS’s NFL coverage in 1973. He would serve as the lead host for the program and anchor of the weekly half hour live broadcast (which actually for several years was three different live broadcasts aired for the different time zones).

With their choice for the former NFL player to be part of the team, CBS chose to go in a far different direction than most might have expected. Instead of selecting a flamboyant personality or a well-known former quarterback, they chose former NFL defensive back Irv Cross. Following a nine-year career with the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams, he had been hired in 1971 by CBS as the first full-time African American color analyst for NFL broadcasts.

What was perhaps the most significant element of hiring the African American Cross was that CBS did not feel the need to balance things by also bringing in a former white player. By hiring one former player, who happened to also be black, they seemed to be signaling that they hired the person they felt was best for the position, regardless of any other factors. While that action may not be seen as significant in 2020, in 1975 it was a pretty important message.

To round out the studio team, CBS went back to the idea attempted in 1970 when they had used a pair of women to provide feature stories. This time, they chose 26-year old former Miss America Phyllis George. Though she had no sports experience, George had been serving as host of the CBS show Candid Camera. For The NFL Today, George provided a weekly feature interview designed to show the more human side of the players in the NFL.

Phyllis George

Though she was not the first woman to serve as a national sportscaster, George was the first to receive such prominent exposure on a popular show and is credited by many that would follow for being a trailblazer in the profession.

Helping to distinguish it from other shows was a musical score created specifically for the show with the theme song known as “Horizontal Hold” written by Dutch composer Jan Stoeckart (under the pseudonym of Jack Trombey).

The show proved to be an immediate hit as it won 13 Emmy Awards during the first year and quickly began a long tenure as the top rated pregame show on television.

In 1976 the cast was completed with the hiring of veteran sports bookie Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder to provide weekly analysis. His addition proved to be the most controversial as some were concerned that CBS was promoting sports gambling. They were very careful not to specifically give point spreads, though Snyder would often through our phrases like “will win by a field goal” or “better than a touchdown.”

After three successful seasons, George left the show in 1978 and was replaced by another beautiful young woman in former Miss Ohio USA Jayne Kennedy. As an African American woman, Kennedy also paved the way for others to follow in her footsteps.

George returned to the show in 1980, but the relationship between her and Snyder was often contentious and eventually led to some segments being shot in advance so that they would not be on set at the same time. Snyder also reportedly punched Musburger in a bar after one show in 1980.

During her second run on The NFL Today, George was also serving as the First Lady for the state of Kentucky as her then-husband, John Brown, was elected Governor in 1979 and served until 1983. George left the program for maternity leave in 1983 when her daughter Pamela was born and officially left the show in 1984.

George, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 70, later was the co-host of the CBS Morning News and started several successful businesses.

The show continued with Musburger, Cross and Snyder leading the way until early in 1988 when Snyder made some controversial comments about African-Americans in a late-night interview and was dismissed from the program. He passed away in 1996 at the age of 77.

Musburger was fired by CBS during a contract dispute in the spring of 1990 and Cross returned to the booth as a game analyst. The NFL Today officially remained on CBS through the 1993 season with Greg Gumbel, Terry Bradshaw and Lesley Visser leading the show.

CBS lost its football broadcasting rights that year to Fox Sports, but returned in 1998. Since its return, the program has included multiple hosts and analysts, but in a time when all networks have similar shows, the similarity to the program anchored by Musburger, Cross, George and Snyder ends with the name.

The list of historically groundbreaking television programs is not an exceptionally long list, but there is no doubt that the NFL Today that started in 1975 certainly belongs on that list.

I don’t think it is over-stating the impact of The NFL Today in the form that began in 1975 and lasted through 1989 to rank it behind only the creation of Monday Night Football in terms of significant media innovations in the last half century that have played a critical role in helping propel the NFL to its current level of popularity.

Prior to 1975, pregame shows were minimal and far less significant than post-game highlight shows. Now, there are hours of pre-game discussions on multiple networks before every game.

You also cannot over-state the ground-breaking impact of The NFL Today in terms of expanding the roles for women and African Americans in sports broadcasting. While CBS went generally against the historic norm by including Cross and George as part of the studio team, seeing women and people of color as part of sports broadcasting teams no longer raises an eye-brow.

The NFL Today show from 1975-1989 proved to be exactly what was needed at the time and showed that even in a world of programmatic formula television, there is room for something to be unique and timeless.

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